Walmart: Black Friday and Beyond

— Dave Kingman

THE “BLACK FRIDAY”strike at Walmart stores surprised and elated many on the left and activists throughout labor and allied movements. The basic facts of the strike and the organizing efforts which led to it have been well-covered in the left and progressive press. This brief commentary attempts to assess the significance of these efforts.

Black Friday did not resemble a conventional strike — the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union says that just several hundred workers (out of more than a million) walked off the job at some point during the action. The significance of Black Friday lies, primarily, in the fact that a core group of Walmart workers, backed by thousands of supporters who organized more than 1,000 actions in 46 states, has shown it’s possible to directly challenge a company that has long seemed impervious to worker organizing.

In challenging Walmart so dramatically, the “walmartstrikers,” and the movement which emerged around them, have re-ignited the national conversation about inequality, corporate power and workers’ rights. This conversation, which surfaced in the Wisconsin Uprising, and was later forced to center stage by the Occupy movement, was muted during the long election campaign. The struggle of Walmart workers, like that of the victorious Chicago teachers, has the potential to drive a broader shift in the relation of forces, perhaps on a much wider scale.

Helping Walmart workers achieve their objectives, and taking full advantage of the political possibilities which their efforts have unleashed, will require the construction of a national movement that extends well beyond the UFCW and other official union structures which have provided backing for the effort. The left can play a crucial role in organizing and sustaining extended networks of working class support.

This does indeed appear to be happening, with local Occupy movements and more traditional left organizations enthusiastically contributing to the Black Friday effort. It is notable in this regard — and positive — that the UFCW and the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) have embraced a strategy which will require large-scale and geographically distributed support activities that are clearly beyond the capacity of the official campaign structure to organize, let alone control.

For example, hundreds of  Black Friday actions were organized online, through the Corporate Action Network (CAN). Using CAN, the campaign encouraged supporters to “adopt” stores and take actions consistent with the broader event, but left the exact nature of those actions to the organizers’ discretion. In the aftermath of the strike, supporters are being encouraged to develop ongoing relationships with worker activists who will need support to beat back the company’s inevitable retaliation and to continue organizing.

Walmart Workers at War

The Black Friday strike represented a new stage in the simmering war between Walmart and workers who have been patiently organizing at key links in the company’s supply chain with support from unions and other advocacy groups.

Over the spring and summer these efforts produced protests, work actions and strikes at Walmart stores around the country, at Walmart-controlled warehouses in Illinois and California, and even at a Louisiana-based seafood processor employing predominantly Mexican “guest” workers. The chief demand in the latest actions was that Walmart stop retaliating against workers involved in these various efforts.

The struggle at Walmart is important because of the company’s size and economic importance but also because of the composition of the company’s 1.4 million-strong workforce. A majority of Walmart workers are women, and the company claims to be the largest single employer of African Americans and Latinos in the United States.

There can be little doubt that Walmart’s business model is dependent, in part, upon the special oppression of women, people of color, and immigrants — and that Walmart’s low-wages and intense repression of worker organizing have helped to reinforce that oppression.

The campaign at Walmart, then, is both a labor struggle and a struggle for social equality. And this much is increasingly clear from the myriad news stories, videos, and photos circulating around the web — the workers in the front ranks of the fight beautifully represent the diversity of the U.S. working class. The Walmart fight presents opportunities for building working class power and unity by challenging nationalism, racism, and sexism in the workplace — and within our movements.

A breakthrough at Walmart could also help to put a floor under wages and benefits in retail as a whole, and spur further organizing throughout the sector. It has become clear, for example, that Target workers are watching and discussing developments at Walmart. When both companies announced that “Black Friday” sales would actually start Thanksgiving night, Target workers initiated an online petition to protest. OUR Walmart members cheered them on and followed their example.

Shortly after Black Friday, fast food workers in New York City staged similar strikes, explicitly citing the example of Walmart workers. Like Occupy and the Chicago Teachers Union, the movement of Walmart workers demonstrates that the best way to change the terms of debate — and possibly the balance of power — is to act boldly.

Dramatic and exciting as these developments are, however, they begin from a rather low point for labor. Thus, it has been justifiably counted as a victory that just hundreds of Walmart workers from dozens of stores have participated in largely symbolic one-day strikes — and that most have avoided the kind of swift retaliation which has been the hallmark of Walmart’s “union avoidance” strategy for many years.

A courageous group of workers has demonstrated the possibility of taking collective action in the face of Walmart’s overwhelming economic and political power. This kind of symbolism has the potential to become a material force as more of the workforce grasps the possibilities.

The Long Haul

Those who become involved in solidarity efforts will need patience. The effects of these early symbolic actions will naturally be very uneven, given all that has to be overcome and the sheer size of the company.

Some may feel that the relatively cautious tactics deployed by the campaign (very limited civil disobedience, reluctance to even encroach upon Walmart property, etc.) are unnecessarily restrictive. While there will be room for debate, assessments of what kinds of tactics and rhetoric are appropriate should be grounded in the experience, capacity and understandings of worker activists and a sober assessment of the balance of power.

The emergence of dynamic organizing efforts among workers throughout the Walmart supply chain provides some positive lessons for the labor movement. In the first place, it should be noted that the organizations through which workers are acting are essentially non-majority unions — worker organizations not recognized under the law for purposes of collective bargaining. In each case, however, unions have provided organizational and financial support.

In the southern California warehouses the Warehouse Workers United (WWU) is backed by the Change to Win labor federation; in the Illinois warehouses the Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) is backed by the United Electrical workers; and in the stores OUR Walmart is backed by the UFCW. In the case of Walmart supplier workers here on temporary work visas, the National Guestworkers Alliance has provided organizational and political support.

The fact that workers without formal union recognition have been able to take work actions, including strikes, is itself significant. The success, so far, of this non-majority union model shows that the labor movement does not have to wait for the unlikely passage of major labor law reform in order to re-ignite organizing efforts.

On the other hand, the Walmart campaign does not constitute a repudiation of the NLRB framework for organizing (as has been advocated by some on the left). Rather, the non-majority model adopted by the campaign makes a pragmatic end-run around some of the problems associated with that framework, while still relying upon protections which remain available to workers under existing labor law.

This means that the campaign continues to face the many constraints imposed on worker action by that system. This was exemplified by the NLRB charge filed by Walmart against the UFCW just days before Black Friday — and the counter-charges filed by OUR Walmart.

While continued attachment to the bureaucratic and legalistic framework of U.S. labor law may be frustrating, it’s important to understand this attachment as a pragmatic accommodation rooted in the relative weakness of both the official labor movement and the left. The frustration of the left should be directed primarily at altering the broader conditions of possibility for organizing outside the confines of the National Labor Relations Act.

Where the Power Lies

The unions backing these efforts have collaborated to develop and implement strategies based on an analysis of the massive Walmart supply chain and its vulnerabilities. Walmart’s success has been premised on the combination of extreme cost-cutting — at the expense of workers and suppliers — and cutting-edge supply chain management practices and technologies.

The workers who move Walmart’s goods have tremendous power by virtue of their critical position in the supply chain. While store workers are somewhat less well-placed to impact Walmart’s operations, they are far more numerous and visible, giving them a different kind of potential power. By acting together during the important holiday season, store workers and warehouse workers are leveraging their respective positions to mutual advantage.

Going forward, however, organizing among store workers will continue to be challenged by the limited capacity of workers at individual stores to impact the company’s operations. It is not clear how the official campaign structures intend to deal with this challenge. It is possible that the national campaign will be able to neutralize Walmart’s traditional fear-based union-busting and thereby create space for more intensive local and regional organizing.

In any case it seems certain that the breadth and intensity of outside support and attention can make a material difference by tying Walmart’s hands with respect to retaliation against rank-and-file organizers.

This will undoubtedly be a long struggle, and workers who step up will face many difficulties — personal, practical, strategic and political. At the local level, the left should find concrete ways to nurture and support the emerging layer of rank-and-file leaders.

These workers are crucial not only to the course of the Walmart organizing drive, but potentially to the revival of the labor movement as a whole. They personify the incredible diversity of the U.S. working class as well as the organic links between what are sometimes seen as disconnected — “community” vs. “labor” — struggles.

Of course, in nurturing these emerging leaders the left should help to develop rank-and-file organizational capacity that can sustain itself independently of official union structures.

Were the UFCW healthier to begin with, its hundreds of thousands of retail industry members would provide a vast pool of member-organizers for the Walmart campaign. As some on the left have quietly noted, however, participation in the Black Friday actions was uneven at the local level within the UFCW. This should not be surprising, but it does point to another opportunity presented by the Walmart campaign.

Where UFCW locals do not take the lead and involve their members, left activists should work to ensure that local organizing around Walmart involves rank-and-file UFCW members. The Walmart campaign could in this way become a catalyst for the formation of rank-and-file movements aimed at transforming UFCW locals into centers of militant struggle.

Walmart Worker Organizations;

Making Change at Walmart, a UFCW-led coalition www.MakingChangeAtWalmart.Org/Black-Friday

OUR Walmart www.ForRespect.org

Warehouse Workers United (California): http://www.warehouseworkersunited.org/

Warehouse Workers for Justice (Illinois): http://www.warehouseworker.org/

National Guestworker Alliance: http://www.guestworkeralliance.org/

News:

In These Times, Labor Notes and The Nation have carried excellent stories on the Walmart campaign.

January/February 2013, ATC 162

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